Tom Colicchio

Tom explains the judging criteria and what he hoped for during the ranch challenge.

on Sep 16, 2009

You’ll notice that we judges are seldom in disagreement. This is because we are always applying the criteria I just outlined above, and, in doing so, tend to reach similar conclusions. We’re not applying whim or personal preference; the dishes themselves tend to give each of us the same basic information upon which to base our decisions.

Applying all of the above to this week’s challenge: 

First, let me digress and say that what I liked about this challenge was the chance to get off the strip. There’s a vast desert out there, and it was neat to see a whole different side of Vegas.  What didn’t work? The heat. It was too hot to cook, too hot to eat … that heat was obnoxious.  And while the idea of cooking over an open flame was nice in the abstract, in actuality the “fire pits” were propane, so they were no big deal to cook on. The other thing I didn’t like about the challenge was that it was too open-ended. The chefs were not asked to do anything food-wise that tied into their being on a ranch. Yes, it was a fun idea to have the chefs sleep and cook in the great outdoors, but as with the use of cactus in the Quickfire Challenge, I would have liked to have seen the challenge more closely connected on a food level with the life of the ranch. Interestingly enough, not one cheftestant cooked steak. I was so surprised by that.

As our cheftestants didn’t know what they’d find in terms of kitchen when they arrived, you’d think that they would have planned dishes that were simple and executable. You know you’re going to a ranch; the odds are good you’d succeed with something that works really well on a grill. Take any piece of meat, fowl, even fish, put a fruit-based or tomato-based salsa with it, add a little spice and a little acid, and you’re set. And, as I said, keep it simple. This is basically what Bryan did: Polenta, a pork loin, some dandelion greens. It was straightforward, and he was able to control the cooking and the seasoning. Contrast that simple game plan with grilling lettuce leaves and such. There was too much that could go wrong. Furthermore, everyone expressed such concern about the cooking elements, but we didn’t hear a peep about the refrigeration, which should have been considered. These chefs spent time around the pool at their digs. They knew it was hot out in the Vegas area. Maybe Robin’s shrimp turned overnight. One way or another, the dishes we were served this episode were the worst of the season to date.

Mattin was the Dauphin of the Overplan. We’ve said this over and over again, even in this very season: Why do three things when you could focus your energies on doing one well? And he said over and over that he does Basque food, but I didn’t see much of that during the season.  Why didn’t he do any? He may have proved far more successful had he applied his particular body of knowledge to these challenges. Even so, though, he failed in the criteria outlined above. Ceviche must be cooked evenly. Mattin’s food was not cut evenly, thus it didn’t cook evenly. Some was cooked while some was raw.  Nor was it seasoned properly. As soon as it landed in my mouth, I tried to get it down and realized I just couldn’t.

And one note about last week’s challenge, in response to any postings that suggested that it was unfair to ask the cheftestants to prepare French sauces when they might not all have attended culinary schools: I never went to culinary school, and one of the first things I taught myself was how to prepare these basic sauces. Learning them is just Cooking 101; they are essential tools for every chef and are the first things that anyone wanting to enter the field must learn, whether in school, on the job, or by teaching oneself (as I did, at first). And not only are the sauces basic in terms of training, they are also a must regardless of what culture a chef has emerged from. Marcus Samuelssohn was born in Ethiopia and later raised in Sweden, and I can guarantee you he can make a béarnaise. It’s just very, very basic. Not knowing these sauces would be like being a woodworker and not knowing how to use sandpaper. You’ll note that there was not a single cheftestant who complained about this challenge, as they all recognized that they were being asked to do something utterly basic.  No one was at a disadvantage, regardless of training background. And at the end of the day, no one was disqualified for not knowing how to make one of these sauces. Hector was disqualified for improperly cooking a piece of meat. He could’ve served first, we could’ve tasted it blind…it wouldn’t have made a difference.

On a personal note, good hearing from you in response to Episode Two, Brian M.